Review: Eileen

23453099

Review for “Eileen” by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“I kept in the glove box of the Dodge a dead field mouse I’d found one day on the porch frozen in a tight ball…I think it made me feel powerful somehow. A little totem. A good luck charm.”

When I read these words, spoken by our main character Eileen Dunlop on page 9, I knew that we were going to be friends. Seriously. Not because I approve of people keeping dead animals in their cars, but because this is where the true brilliance of this book began. From the first pages you become acutely aware that you are talking to an older Eileen, reflecting back on the events of one week around the Christmas holiday of 1964, leading up to her permanent departure from her unnamed New England town.

This book goes hard on so many levels. It is one of the most fascinating character studies that I’ve read in a very long time. Eileen Dunlop is mentally unstable and a psychiatrist’s dream: she is lonely, self-loathing, sexually repressed, passive aggressive, and neurotic, living in a filthy house with her abusive alcoholic father and sleeping on a rickety cot in the attic. She shoplifts, does not take regular showers, does not wash her hands, and is fascinated by her own bodily secretions (don’t ask, ok?). She works as a secretary in a juvenile boy’s prison and passes her days entertaining herself with lewd fantasies of one of the guards that works there. All of this is routine for Eileen until a charming, enigmatic young counselor begins working at the prison and changes Eileen’s entire world.

I could not get enough of this novel. I loved her voice, the nuances of the narration. Moshfegh’s writing is so skillfully consuming that despite Eileen’s general unlikeable-ness, I never got bored or tired of her. Eileen obsessively self-scrutinizes under a perfect outward mask of self control, and Moshfegh explores every nook and cranny and cobweb of her character’s brain. She is a perfect train wreck, and I could not look away. Eileen was like some rare, never-seen-before insect: intriguing and repulsing me at the same time. As I finished, my first thought was that this is a modern-day revamp of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” with its beautiful descriptions of a young woman’s slow unraveling, a downward spiral into madness.

Be cautioned, however, that this book is not for everyone. A lot of reviewers find its lack of a definitive plot frustrating, the tension too drawn out, the ending a let down. I won’t spoil it, but for all the criticism, the raw power of the character development here trumped all. I can excuse the ending, because for me it was all about the scenery along the ride. And I love every single moment of it.

Advertisements

Review: Violent Ends

23341259

Review for ‘Violent Ends’ by Shaun David Hutchinson, et al (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After I finished this book I spent about 10 minutes staring up at the ceiling, thinking: Wow.

This book takes a very unique narrative approach–it is a novel told in 17 different short stories, all centered around one terrible and tragic event, a school shooting. Each story is by a different author of YA literature, some of whose names I’m familiar with, but many of which I’ve not yet read. The stories are non-linear. Some take place over various periods before the shooting, some after, and some during the actual shooting.

The unifying thread throughout all of the stories is Kirby Matheson, the teenage shooter who kills a teacher, several of his classmates, and injures a dozen more before finally killing himself. Kirby never speaks to us directly, but the people connected to him do–friends, acquaintances, family members, his classmates–some that knew him intimately, some that didn’t know him at all. You never really get a sense of who Kirby was or why he did what he did, but the gaps in your understanding are precisely the point of this book. After such tragedies occur, we pause to wonder why seemingly “normal” people become violent. Was he bullied? Was he mentally ill? Were there signs? Did his parents know? “Violent Ends” offers no clear answers, just a picture of an American tragedy and the people left in its wake.

Be cautioned that all of the stories in this book are not created equal, however. Some were quite forgettable, but there were several standouts. “Grooming Habits” was sensational, as well as “Survival Instinct,””History Lessons,” and “Presumed Destroyed.” The authors of these stories I will most definitely be reading in the future, just because the writing was that damn good.

Read this book. Once you start it you won’t be able to put it down.

Review: Brother

IMG_0374-0

Review for “Brother” for Ania Ahlborn (released on September 29. 2015)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Creepy, horrifying, disturbing, gross. And excellent.

Did I mention that I am giving this book 4.5 stars?

This book is horror at its best. The Morrows are a West Virginian family living deep in the Appalachian wilderness (think: “Deliverance”), so deep that “no one can hear the screams.” And for good reason. The Morrows–mom Claudine, dad Wade, and their son Rebel–are a family of psychotic killers that prey on young women that are unfortunate enough to cross their path. This book follows the thoughts of nineteen-year-old Michael, Rebel’s “adopted” brother and the polar opposite of the Morrows. Although he participates in his family’s gruesome “activities,” he gets no pleasure from them. He dreams of other possibilities for his life and contemplates running away when he meets an attractive girl in town named Alice.

[Pause.]

To tell you more about this book is to completely spoil it, which I won’t do. There are flashbacks throughout this novel, that, when taken as a whole, make the events you’re reading about all the more disturbing. There is also a sickening, depraved twist in this novel that I won’t give away either, other than to say that I did not see IT coming, even from a million miles away…

I don’t think I want to know where Ania Alhborn got the idea for this book. A lot of the details harken back to the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” but in the Acknowledgements section, the author says she didn’t get her inspiration from that movie. Regardless, I was completely engrossed in this book. It’s a must read, especially if you like horror, and extremes are your thing. Highly recommended!

[NOTE: I received an advanced publishers’ copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Notice

Review for “Notice” by Heather Lewis (2004)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“But even with that slumber taking me over, and then taking me under, I knew that leviathan thing slept in this same darkness. Lay with me, too. Resting, biding its time.”

Heather Lewis, Notice, pg. 203

Heather Lewis, the author of this book, took her own life after she wrote these words. “Notice” was published posthumously in 2004, two years after her death. It was published by a small printing press and as of 2015, this book is out of print and damn near impossible to get in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. I finally did an interlibrary loan and waited for 4 weeks, and lo and behold, it arrived.

Now that I’m done: Jesus Christ.

This book is, unequivocally, one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read. The main character is a young woman who works as a prostitute, casually taking money for loveless sex with strangers. She eventually gets involved with a sadist and his wife–and what ensues is one of the most bizarre and violent S&M relationships in recent literature. This leads her into a relationship with her therapist, and another bizarre, S&M-like sexual relationship ensues.

This book is in first person, and narrated with a cold, emotionally detached tone to match. The amount of sexual violence was so extreme and frequent here that I wanted to stop reading it, but Something continued to compel me to go back. Not because I wanted to hear about how the main character gets used and abused, but because you want to know what drives her, what’s inside her head. It never happens. This is one of those stories that you want to somehow become easy reading, for things to become less cruel and complicated–until you realize that your comfort level was never the point here. It’s human brutality laid bare in its purest form, and Heather Lewis wants us to notice. This was not just a novel, this book was her catharsis.

It is not often when I give such a brutal book such high praise, but if you can find it through whatever obscure means available and you can manage to take a risk and stomach it, I DO recommend reading it. Tell your librarian that I sent you. (*wink*)

Review: 52 Likes

24663013

Review for “52 Likes” by Medeia Sharif (2015)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I like thrillers, especially YA thrillers, so naturally this book drew my interest. At the beginning, there’s barely enough time to meet Valerie before she is brutally raped and almost killed by an unknown assailant. As horrible as it is (and it is really horrifying and terrible to read), I thought that the author handled this subject matter well. When dealing with unpleasant topics there is always the option to linger and lose the reader in unnecessary, gory details, but thankfully Sharif doesn’t do this. After the rape Valerie is harassed by peers at school, and sent mysterious messages on a social media website that hints of the rapist’s identity. Valerie begins to follow these clues and it leads her into the knowledge of more unsolved crimes by this mysterious man–with a supernatural twist.

Why 3 stars? I liked this, but ahhh…the character. Valerie is a strong girl who (she doesn’t take her fate laying down), but for some reason I never really connected with her. The writing here is flat–the parts of the book when I should have been scared I wasn’t, and where there was supposed to be other emotions (tension, maybe?) I never really felt them. And much of the book, especially the end, just seemed, I don’t know…rushed. Like the author was aware of some deadline and had to wrap it up as quickly as possible. It’s a quick read–one that teens will probably like–and I wouldn’t necessarily be against reading other books by Ms. Sharif in the future. But I wouldn’t put this book on a recommended read list.

[I received this advanced publisher’s copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Made You Up

  
Review for “Made You Up” by Francesca Zappia (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Very interesting YA novel about a teenage girl living with paranoid schizophrenia. One of the first books I’ve read in a long time that takes the unreliable narrator in an entirely new direction I’ve never seen it venture into before. Alex, the main character, is somewhat unlikeable…but man, this girl is a stick of dynamite. She never wallows in pity, whines, or even asks you to understand her. Her thoughts are honest and laid bare in such a way that I came to trust her, even when I knew that her observations may or may not be real. Three pages into this and I loved her immediately.

I won’t give any spoilers to the actual story here, because that would completely ruin the beauty of this book. If you are interested in books that thoughtfully (and tastefully!) explore mental illness, then read it for yourself.

One of the reasons I love YA so much as an adult is because it’s one of the few genres that seems to be tackling current issues in new and profound ways. I’ve read many books about mental illness in my lifetime, but lemme tell you, nothing like this before.

Do read this. You won’t be disappointed.

Review: Go Set a Watchman

o-GO-SET-A-WATCHMAN-570

Review for “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee (2015)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

— Warning: Spoilers ahoy! —

Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel. What it is, is the first draft of a book Harper Lee wrote in 1957 before her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird that was initially rejected by publishers. In reading the first chapter of this, I completely understand why Watchman is not a good book. It presents a challenge for me to write a review on it here, because Harper Lee probably never intended to have this work see the light of day. As a writer myself, I am of the opinion that a first draft is hardly considered a ‘novel’ because it is not yet a completed product. Even the publisher considered this book to be “more of a series of anecdotes” than a fully conceived novel. Therefore, the designated title of ‘novel’ for Watchman is deceptive and debatable at best. For all intents and purposes, I didn’t read this as a novel or a sequel, but as a historical snapshot of a certain era in American history.

As a novel, however, Watchman fails, and fails miserably. There are poor quality, hurriedly printed, standard YA fare that are better than this. It is completely bland and lacks the personality and the colorful, rich dialogue of Mockingbird. In this book, Jean Louise is a spoiled, narcissistic young adult. There is a faint trace of a plot, which I’ll discuss later, but the simplicity of it is highly problematic. Attempts at humor on the part of any of the characters fall woefully flat. The writing is terribly scattered and confusing, and narration wanders aimlessly between 1st and 3rd person, past and present tense.

What can be gleaned from the faint glimmer of the plot of this book is this: Jean Louise learns that her father, Atticus, is not who she thought he was. They argue (the climax of this book). She accepts him anyway. End of novel. In between are flashbacks of Scout as a child, of her brother Jem (who is now deceased), and Dill, only in Watchman these accounts are unfocused, muddled, and boring. We learn a little about Scout’s transition into womanhood, but that’s about it. Some characters reappear from Mockingbird such as Uncle Jack, Calpurnia, and Aunt Alexandra. Noticeably absent are characters such as Boo Radley, Miss Crawford, Dolphus Raymond, and several others.

There is very little in this book that characterizes Atticus Finch, the titular character, other than what we already know from Mockingbird and what we observe on the surface. Twenty years after the greatness of Mockingbird, Atticus is now a lonely, arthritic racist. Other than this, the Atticus of Watchman is a flat character. The climax of this book is an argument between Jean Louise and Atticus, in which we are only told by Harper Lee how to feel Atticus, then to change our minds and feel differently. Just as Jean Louise learns Atticus isn’t who he truly is, white readers learned last week that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t necessarily the book that they loved as children.

Because this book functions as a historical snapshot, the race and class politics of this book cannot be ignored. White supremacy is in plain view all over Watchman. Jean Louise, we learn, is opposed to the recent Supreme Court decision that ‘separate but equal’ is unconstitutional. She feels as if no ‘respectable’ white person would ever marry a Negro. She is also frustrated at Calpurnia at her perceived disloyalty to her, for daring to care more about her own grandson than memories of raising her. Her and Atticus both despise the NAACP and feel that the government has no right to tell white Southerners what to do. The foundation of her attitude is that Negroes are inferior, and whites are intellectually superior. Although it appears that Jean Louise has a more progressive view on race than her father, it really isn’t.

As previously stated, the real interesting part of this book is the climax–the argument between Jean Louise and Atticus. Atticus remains calm throughout, however, after the argument, Uncle Jack slaps her. Jean Louise learns that, as a woman, the beliefs of white men are to be respected and will be imposed upon her, even through violence. Patriarchy is the law of the Finch household, and if she is to stay there, she must submit to it. There is no compromise to be made here, as Atticus and Uncle Jack never compromise their racist beliefs. Jean Louise reluctantly learns to listen, even though she somewhat disagrees as to what role blacks should play in their community. 

By conceding to hateful beliefs, Jean Louise tolerates racism, as well as respects those who practice it, because they are, in her view, ‘decent’ white people. Atticus is a white supremacist, but since he is a “nice racist” (after all, he did defend that colored boy, Tom Robinson), Jean Louise is content to maintain a more humanistic view of Atticus and respect him, and we as readers, fifty years later, should too.

My response? Hell no.

Hate, in any form, is not respectable and does not deserve tolerance. It is fascinating that this argument still exists today, with people who feel that their religious beliefs should go before others who ask for tolerance. Hate is simply not acceptable and should not be tolerated. By her silence toward the status quo, Jean Louise really isn’t all that much different from Atticus. The message that we should should carry here is that we as a society still haven’t evolved much, fifty years later.

Many people are shocked and disgusted to find that Atticus has “changed ” in this book. The thing is, Atticus hasn’t changed, he has always held racist beliefs. But like young Scout, readers are too blinded by their saintlike regard for Atticus that they ignored this, or simply did not see it. I, too, gave Atticus way too much credit here. Big mistake.

It is hard to believe that same author of this book could craft something with the beauty and dexterity of To Kill a Mockingbird in just two years. It is indeed a remarkable feat in and of itself, as well as my guess that she also probably had one hell of an editor the second time around, as this book lacks one.

Two stars here. I refuse to give Watchman one star, I respect Harper Lee too much. If anything, the hot mess of this book makes me clutch To Kill a Mockingbird all the more tighter and treasure it for the gem that it truly is, and to learn to understand the contradictions that make us all human.